Uncategorized | March 01, 2013

Today’s post comes from Monica A. Hand

This morning I read through the folder of poems I have been collecting for the last four months, poems by Michael S. Harper, a poet whose influence has reached across generations and now has found me.  Outside my apartment, it is snowing and there is an eerie calm as most of the city waits for the storm to pass.

I read out loud the opening lines of his poem, “Valentine Snow,” written for Myra Sklarew, who from 1987 to 1991 served as president of the Yaddo artist community

You drive on the tin flank
of the expressway;
tunnels fog and compress,
and the big plows
that burn and rankle
the drifts, run till empty.

I read slowly through the poem caught in its images…”a harness of cold,”  “the semi/as it flipped her over/the top of her head, and suspended there,” and pause at the implications of being caught in a storm.

You could die on the lift
and resin of love
in each fresh snow

Outside, blankets of snow cover the roof of the parking garage across the street, and the trees look as if they have been dipped in powdered sugar.  It is a rare moment of quiet for this, my first year in Columbia, and my first year in the PhD program has been noisy with activity and expectation.

* * * * * * *

In less than three weeks, 21 academics and poets will gather here on the campus of the University of Columbia to present on the literary work and tutelage of Michael S. Harper. One of America’s foremost poets, Harper has created, in the last 42 years, a body of work that changed the way African American poetry is viewed.  Four generations of published novelist, poets, playwrights, and professors credit his teaching, mentorship and scholarship for their beginning.

Harper Use Trouple Cover

The two-day Michael S. Harper Symposium, March 14-15, is the brainchild of University professors Aliki Barnstone and Cornelius Eady.  Professor Barnstone, the author of several books of poems, a translator, critic and editor had studied with Harper at Brown University beginning when she was 19. She credits him as one of her primary literary influencers.

Professor Eady, who first met Harper in 1977 when he was 23, is currently The Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing and Professor in English at The University of Missouri-Columbia.  He is also the author of several prize-winning poetry collections, a playwright, and singer-songwriter.

Eady describes his early Harper experience: I was a baby poet in my first poetry workshop, and through my connection to that workshop I was given a full scholarship for a summer workshop at the University of Rochester. I have four strong memories from then 1) He somehow memorized everyone’s name on the first day of the workshop, 2) He asked me if I knew where the jazz clubs were in town–there was only one, 3) His great reading of “Dear John, Dear Coltrane”, to a tape of Coltrane’s  “A Love Supreme”, the first time I ever heard jazz and poetry together and 4) At the end of the week, he asked if he could steal some line or image from one of my poems–even at my delicate age, I knew it meant something to get his attention that way.

Barnstone likes to reminisce about how she almost left Brown until Harper interceded and showed personal interest in her academic career.  She also vividly recalls Harper reading from “Dear John, Dear Coltrane”.

I first met Michael S. Harper fifteen years ago at a Cave Canem (CC) retreat. Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem is described as “a home for the many voices of African American poetry and is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. Harper was one of the poets I worked with that year along with Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Afaa Michael Weaver and Elizabeth Alexander.  I remember Harper as both insistent and incisive.

CAve Canem SmallLogo

Ira Sadoff writes in the introduction of his book, History Matters: Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture, “Whether as artists we willfully choose an aesthetic or not, our aesthetic values are inevitably formed by the stimulation other contemporary artists provide us, by the history, and ideas and values that have interest and currency in the culture at large.  Early in his writing life, Harper was influenced by jazz music.

About his process, Harper writes, “I tried to hear every word in a poem, an aural logic I’d learned listening to singers, to musicians, and to phrasing, a lineation or organizing in increments without preaching and without too many roadmaps.”

Both jazz poet and poet historian, Harper poems are complex and layered with the markers of his life and that of historical events.   From, “Here Where Coltrane Is,”

Dreaming on a train from New York
to Philly, you hand out six
notes which become an anthem
to our memories of you:
oak, birch, maple,
apple, cocoa, rubber.
For this reason Martin is dead;
for this reason Malcolm is dead;
for this reason Coltrane is dead;
in the eyes of my first son are the browns
of these men and their music.

Harper’s work, like that of the Greek poet Cavafy, “translates history, the record of many, into an individual personal document” (Barnstone).

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How fortuitous it is that I should be immersed in the poetry of Michael S. Harper at this moment when I am reinventing myself and re-defining  my aesthetic values.  In too many ways to mention, I no longer see America as America the Beautiful.  I cannot just write pretty poems in a world that is so fractured and constantly on the verge of a meltdown: from war, domestic violence, and pollution (psychic, emotional and environmental).  Harper wrote, writes about the stark realities of history.  He does not however, abandon compassion.  From his latest collection, Use Trouble,

Headset
(In memory of my mother)

Rachmaninoff’s Second is upon me;
I conjure all the opera music you knew,

how lush your contralto heart, how fine your gloss
of Kansas City piano music; how swift your frock

at the Comus; I watch your cutting pap’s
hair; there ain’t no hair like his under those deft fingers.

“Write nothing, down,” you said;
no notes fine enough, not even ashes.

As Harper writes in his poem, “Maroons,” Poetry teaches belief in people/it chooses you/ you don’t choose it.  It is a belief in people and knowing you are among the “chosen” that I heard when I first listened to Barnstone and Eady talk about celebrating the work of Harper.  I am sure the campus will be awash with this same inspiration and magic in a couple of weeks when we convene to discuss Harper’s work and brilliant career.   It will be history in the making and personally transformative.

For more about the Michael S. Harper Symposium, go to www.michaelharpersymposium.com.  All events are free including the live jazz poetry concert, March 15, but pre-registration is required.

Monica A Hand, author of  “me and Nina,” (Alice James Books, 2012), is also a book artist. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including Aunt Chloe, Black Renaissance Noire, Naugatuck River Review, The Sow’s Ear, Drunken Boat, Beyond the Frontier, African-American Poetry for the 21stCentury, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decadeand American Creative Writers on Class.  She has a MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and has attended residencies at Poets House in New York and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  A Cave Canem alum, she is also a founding member of Poets for Ayiti. Currently, she is a PhD candidate – Creative Writing – Poetry at the University of Missouri- Columbia.

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